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Putin Purges Defense Ministry in Dramatic Anti-Corruption Campaign Amid Ukraine War

Removing a long-time defense minister is not unusual, but arresting five of his senior staff signifies more than just a routine reshuffle, especially in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

The recent dismissal of Sergei Shoigu as defense minister and the subsequent arrests within the defense ministry indicate a significant shake-up under the pretext of an anti-corruption campaign. This move comes after nearly three years of setbacks in Ukraine, where Russia has recently seen some success, particularly in the Kharkiv and Donbas regions.

Ukraine’s struggles with manpower and ammunition shortages, worsened by delays in US military support, have contributed to Russia’s recent advances. Given these gains, the timing of the shake-up raises questions about the motivations behind it.

Analysts have described the Russian defense ministry as one of the most corrupt institutions in the country. Russian state media has been exposing extravagant military contracts and the lavish lifestyles of senior officials. One analyst noted that this is part of a complex power play tied to Putin’s quest for victory against the West.

The ghost of Yevgeny Prigozhin, former leader of the Wagner mercenary group, looms over this situation. Before his death in a suspicious plane crash, Prigozhin had vocally criticized Shoigu and General Valery Gerasimov for corruption and incompetence. His mutiny against them put Putin in a difficult position, challenging his authority. Despite Prigozhin’s death, his accusations continue to resonate.

Putin likely waited until after his reelection in March to move against the defense ministry, aiming to avoid appearing reactionary. The changes came shortly after the Victory Day celebrations on May 9, where Putin and Shoigu appeared together.

Shoigu, though removed as defense minister, has been reassigned to a new role as secretary of the security council, keeping him within Putin’s sphere of influence.

Tatiyana Stanovaya, a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, emphasized that in Russian politics, interests outweigh right and wrong. Putin’s primary interest is winning the war in Ukraine, and the defense ministry plays a crucial role in this effort.

By appointing civilian economist Andrey Belousov as the new defense minister, Putin signals a focus on efficient and economical weapons procurement. Russia’s 2024 budget reflects this shift, with defense spending set to reach 6% of GDP, the highest in modern Russian history, surpassing social spending and indicating a move toward a wartime economy.

Corruption within the ministry is exemplified by the cases of Lieutenant General Vadim Shamarin and Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov. Shamarin was charged with accepting a substantial bribe in exchange for awarding lucrative contracts, while Ivanov was placed under house arrest on suspicion of bribery. Both have denied the charges, but their arrests highlight the deep-seated corruption within the ministry.

To address this, Putin has appointed Oleg Savelyev, a former auditor, as the new deputy minister of defense, signaling a commitment to cleaning up the ministry.

Rumors about the potential dismissal of General Gerasimov, another target of Prigozhin’s criticisms, persist. However, Gerasimov remains in his position, suggesting he may still secure his future in the shifting power dynamics.

In Putin’s Russia, the focus remains on achieving victory in Ukraine. The recent changes in the defense ministry reflect the president’s willingness to make significant personnel shifts in pursuit of this goal.

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Calvin van der Spuy
Calvin van der Spuy
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